Maritime and Trade Experiences of the Muslims under Zamorins of Calicut (14th – 16th Centuries A.D.)

Khalid Ponmulathodi  (Research Scholar, Aligarh University)

"Calicut owed its importance partly to the ability of its rulers, but mainly to the assistance they received from the Muhammedan (particularly the Arabs) traders that frequented it”.
                                                                                                           
It can be said, with some degree of certainty, that the evolution of Calicut as a trade emporium of international repute might have inextricably been associated with the Arab Muslims on the one hand and the patronage extended by the Zamorins, the rulers of Calicut, on the other. As it is well known, the disintegration of the Kulasekhara empire or the second Chera kingdom in the first quarter of 12th century led to the political fragmentation of the empire into various ‘Nadus’ which were parcelled out among the powerful rajas or chieftains. Calicut, in the course of time, became more powerful among all the kingdoms prevailed in the country of Malabar. It is more plausible, as the travellers’ accounts prior to Ibn Battuta did not provide any mention that the city of Calicut would not have grown enough to such a pivotal centre of trade before the fourteenth century A.D. Apparently in the succeeding century, ships as far as from China have also been frequented to this port for procuring the spices, for which the Malabar Coast is known everywhere. Moreover, the security provided at the port of Calicut under the prerogative of the Zamorins, for both men and materials, on their very establishment invited the merchants from different parts of the world which, no doubt, culminated in the development of large scale foreign settlements, pre-eminently the Muslims, on the coast of Malabar. It was only after the arrival of Portuguese, at the close of fifteenth century, that the fortunes of both the Arabs and the city of Calicut began to sink at the expense of the former.
    In this paper, a modest attempt has been made to locate the position enjoyed by the Muslims in general, with ample space being devoted to Muslim merchants and the Kunjali Marakkars, under the Zamorins of Calicut in the pre-colonial Malabar. There is, perhaps, nothing erroneous to say that the spread of Islam and the prosperity of the city of Calicut had a complementary relation with each other. Well, the very question of what prompted more to these foreign merchants, pre-eminently the Arabs followed by the Chinese, towards Calicut needs to be studied in detail despite the fact that its answer did, partially, lay in the unquestionable patronage being rendered by the rulers of this kingdom. Indeed, this can be best understood from a thirteenth century inscription deciphered from the Muccunti Mosque in the vicinity of Calicut. Also, they found a political ally in Kunjali Marakkars, particularly in sixteenth century, on their ongoing tussles with the Lusitanians (Portuguese) for the mastery over the Arabian Sea if not the whole of Indian Ocean trade. At the formative stage of the development of this port city, it was the Ka?rimi merchants of Egypt who have played very remarkable role in its fortunes until the close of fifteenth century, under the aegis of Mamluk sultans whose activities were much more pronounced after the decline of Abbasid caliphate in 1258 A.D. No doubt, Calicut was the principal centre of trade for the Al-Ka?rimi merchants from Cairo. Even before this, the ‘Cairo Geniza Records’ provides a mine of information pertaining to the trade transactions carried on between the Malabar coast and the red Sea region through Aden, in 11th -12th centuries A.D. Although nobody has ever used it for this part of the country, I willingly prefer to call the second quarter of the 2nd millennium A.D. as the ‘golden age’ of Calicut, as far as the trade and commerce is concerned.
    Undoubtedly, the genesis of the Mappila community, the foremost among the Muslims of Kerala, is traced back to the Arab merchants settled at these ports during the period under purview, who by marrying the native low caste Hindu women, made  possible a constant increase in the Muslim population. While writing in the early decades of sixteenth century, Duarte Barbosa makes it clear that one-fifth (20%) of the total population of Calicut belong to the Muslim community. Presumably, they had their settlements adjacent to the port and shores, which would facilitate their functioning quite effectively.
    It is not very unlikely that the coast of Malabar in general, had a rich but strange tradition of receiving all those who wished to settle in this country irrespective of their religion and state. As a result, all the three major religions – the Christianity, the Judaism and the Islam – had their imprint on this land from their very establishment. Although there appears to have been a dearth in the number of followers over the period of time, both Jainism and Buddhism too, had struck deep roots in this part of the country. Either directly or not, the developments taking place outside Malabar, particularly in the Muslim world of West Asia after the decline of Abbasid Caliphate in 1258 A.D., had far reaching impacts on the maritime history of Calicut. The Persian Gulf lost its predominance and in its stead came the Egypt under the Mamluk sultans, which resulted in the Arabs’ taking over of the sea route with newly emerged port of Calicut. However, it was only after the advent of Arab merchants to the Malabar, particularly in the first half of second millennium that the glory of the Calicut reached its zenith, thanks to the patronage and assistance extended by the Zamorins. Thus, as early as from fourteenth century, the famous traveller Ibn Battuta attributes Calicut as one of the largest harbours of the world and the merchants as far as from China, Sumatra, Maldives, Yeman and Fars (Persia or Iran) frequented to this port. By this time, the city of Calicut was filled with the foreign merchants. Mithqa?l, the wealthy merchant and ship owner of the period also lived in Calicut and his ships were regularly traded with India, China, Yemen and Persia. It was this same wealthy merchant who has been credited for the construction of the famous Mithqa?l or Misqa?l mosque at Kuttichira near Calicut in the early fourteenth century, which was famous for its wooden architecture but destroyed later by the Portuguese. Little more than hundred years from thence, Ma Huan too makes similar kind of attribution to the port of Calicut which, as he calls Ku-li, was a great emporium of trade frequented by merchants from all quarters. Furthermore, Calicut along with Khambatt (Cambay) were considered as the two prominent centers of trade on the western coast of India during the pre-Portuguese period as far as international maritime trade stretching at Malacca and went on to the Red Sea region. Here, we can see that the sea-borne trade that thrived in Calicut during this period had two different directions, one that stretched to the Red Sea regions while the other to China Sea.
    Due consideration was given to the merchants by the royal authority in order to maintain a favourable trade atmosphere which could be well understood from the accounts of Abdur Razzak, the Persian ambassador to the court of Calicut and thence to Vijayanagar, in 1442 A.D. He records;
“Security and justice are so firmly established in this city, that the most wealthy merchants bring thither from maritime countries considerable cargoes, which they unload and unhesitatingly send into the markets and bazaars, without thinking in the meantime of any necessity of checking the account or of keeping watch over the goods. The officers of the customs house take upon themselves the charge of looking after the merchandise over which they keep watch day and night. When a sale is effected they levy a duty on the goods of one-fortieth (2.5%) part; if they are not sold they make no charge on them whatsoever”.   
Again, we find instances in Keralolpathi, though the veracity of this book as a source for history has been questioned everywhere, where the honesty of the ruler of Calicut is described in some detail as given below.
“A merchant from the east coast, who had been on a trading voyage to Mecca, reached Calicut with a ship over-loaded with gold. The ship was about to sink in consequence, and the merchant brought it close in shore at Calicut, took out a box of treasure, laid it before the Zamorin, and told his story. The Zamorin directed him to bring the treasure ashore, and to store it in his palace. The merchant accordingly built granite cellar in the king’s house, and deposited therein as much of the treasure as could not be conveniently taken away in his ship. He then sailed for his own country, and after a time returned to Calicut, opened the cellar in the presence of Zamorin, counted out the treasure and finding it correct, divided it into two portions and offered the Zamorin one half of it. But Zamorin replied “I do not want your treasure, you may take away the whole”. The Chetti, being convinced that this was the most truthful of all Kings and Svarupams (dynasties), then asked and obtained permission to trade at Calicut”.

It is incorrect to assume, as many would believe, that religious freedom extended by the Zamorins towards all the communities did come to an end along with the taking over of the overseas trade by the Portuguese from the hands of Arabs. In fact, writing as late as in the early seventeenth century, what Pyrard Laval found unique about Calicut is nothing but the religious freedom provided at will to all the merchants by Zamorin and also a strict prohibition of any talks or disputes pertaining to the matter of religion. The intentions of the rulers are pretty clear from this very single comment by which the Zamorin wanted his kingdom to be very rich, as it was the case from thirteenth century, and prosperous but not by any unfair means. It should also be noted that the administration of justice for Muslims were conducted in accordance with the Islamic jurisprudence, for which the Zamorin appointed an officer (Qa?di or Qa?zi) from the Muslims.  It appears that the new rulers who came to power in the succeeding years were not only respected this religion, but also helped the Muslims to maintain their religious identity intact.  This could be easily perceived from the writings of Sheikh Zainuddin. He comments;
“The rulers [of Calicut] facilitate the Muslims’ observance of their Friday prayers and the festivals. They designate the stipend for the qa?dis and the mu’adhdhins, and entrust them with the duty of carrying the Shar’ia between Muslims. No one is permitted to neglect the Friday prayers”.
  From this information, this can be articulated that Muslims were, by no means, not only a tool for the economic prosperity of the country, but they were also treated as political allies of the Zamorins as far as the administration is concerned. Nor did the Muslim participation, in terms of administration, was remain confined to their own affairs. They were, however, given some charges in temple administration as well; for instance, we come across an officer named Kochammed working as an accountant (Menokki or Kanakkappilla), from the temple records of Varakkal (Puthiyangadi) pertaining to late sixteenth century (1583 A.D.).
Probably, the most powerful Muslim officer under the Zamorin was Shahbandar Koya or Kozhikkottu Koya, who held responsible for the overall happenings at the port of Calicut. In fact, Shah Bandar is a Persian term and believed to have used to denote the ‘harbour master’ throughout the medieval Islamic world; while the title Koya was a local addition given by the Zamorins. Ibn Battuta mentions the name of a Shahbandar from Behrain, whose name was Ibrahim. Moreover, the Zamorins bestowed him the most coveted right to stand on his right side at the eve of Mamakam festival, besides many other privileges. Tura Marakkar was another influential officer placed in charge of the safe anchorage of the ships arrived at each small port under the Zamorins of Calicut. As far as the concentration of trade is concerned, the tendency of polarization among the Muslim merchants into the overseas traders and the local traders could not be neglected. Hence the Arabs, mainly from Mecca and Egypt, were pioneers of overseas trade while the local trade was exclusively on the hands of the local Muslims of Kerala or what is better known as Mappilas of the country. Each of these groups is believed to have worked under their own respective leadership; thus we find Khwaja Shamsuddin as the leader of the foreign Muslim merchants and Khwaja Pakki or Koya Pakki as his local counterpart.  The Hindu rulers of Calicut considered both Paradesis and the Mappilas (local Muslims) with equal status which would lead to the influx of large scale Muslim Merchants’ settlement to the Malabar.  Moreover, the Zamorins were not antagonistic towards the local Hindu converts to Islam and did not punish anyone for being done so.
As far as the trade and commerce carried on the port of Calicut is concerned, ten or fifteen ships used to sail for the Red Sea, Aden and Mecca, where they (mainly the Arabs) sold their goods to some merchants of Juda (Jidda), and from there to Cairo and thence to Alexandria. From here, this merchandise was taken into Venice from where they went to the whole of Europe. These goods include pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cardamoms, myrobalans, tamarinds, canafistula, precious stones of every kind, seed pearls, musk, ambergris, rhubarb, aloes-wood, large amount of cotton cloths and porcelains etc. On their return voyage to Calicut from Jidda, they brought in copper, quick silver, vermilion, coral, saffron, coloured velvets, rosewater, knives, coloured camlets, gold, silver and so on. Generally, their ships set sail from Calicut in January and returned back in between the middle of August up to the middle of October. Zamorin took keen interest, as we see, in their affairs and regularly assigned a Nair and a Chetty clerk to serve them. Indeed, a broker was also arranged to facilitate the supply and sale of the goods at the port.
The Portuguese intervention on the Malabar Coast necessitated the demand for a powerful navy under the Zamorins which was accomplished by the Kunjali Marakkars or the so called ‘naval chieftains’ of Calicut kingdom. The genesis and growth of these naval chieftains are still obscure as there could be seen differences of opinion among the historians regarding the same. Some believe that the Marakkars were the followers of those merchants who came to Malabar from Arabia during the eighth century. It is generally believed that the original seat of their family was at Cochin from where they migrated to Ponnani. The intermittent outbursts over Ponnani in the years 1507 and 1524 respectively, forced the Marakkars to shift their headquarters to Pantalayani, north of Calicut. Finally, they settled at Puduppattanam or Kottakkal.This was confirmed by Sheikh Zainuddin, the renowned author of, perhaps, the first local historical work on Malabar entitled “Tuhfat-ulMujahideen”, compiled in 1583 A.D. He states;
 “In the same year [1524], some of the faqihs of Koshi [Cochin], like Ahamad Marakkar, his brother, Kunjali Marakkar, their uncle Muhammad Ali Marakkar and their descendents felt their desire to wage war against the Portuguese. They left Koshi [Cochin] for Kalikut [Calicut]”.
According to William Logan, the term Kunjali is an honoric title conferred upon his naval captains by the Zamorin. At the same time, the term Marakkar is an abbreviation of Margakkaran (follower of the law) and applied as a title to persons of foreign religion like the Christians and the Muhammedans. Contrary to this, there has been an attempt to connect its origin from the term Marakkat, the plural of the word Marakkan, which is identical with a common caste-name among the Hindu sea-going folk, the Mukkuvans in probability, of the Malabar Coast. Interestingly, in some parts of Kerala, the Mukkuvans are still known as Marakkans. In fact, Ali was a honorary title, after the brave Muslim Caliph Ali, given by the Zamorin.
It was these powerful naval chieftains of Calicut who held responsible for the introduction of the fast-moving Paraos or small ships in large amounts, which could operate easily by all the time and, if possible, save themselves from their Portuguese counterparts by moving into the shallow waters since these large Portuguese ships were unsuccessful to pursue them any further. Mainly, there were four major Kunjali Marakkars who acted as the naval chieftains of the Zamorins in sixteenth century. Kutti Ahammed Kunjali was the first among these powerful Kunjali Marakkars holld the post from 1501-1531. He was succeeded by his son, Kunjali II who adorned the post till his death in 1579. Third in this list was the Pattu Marakkar and was succeeded by his son-in-law Muhammed alias Kunjali IV in 1595. Owing to the Portuguese conspiracy against the Kunjali IV, the Zamorins attacked Kunjali fort with the support of the Portuguese and handed over the Kunjali Marakkar to the latter in 1599. This was a dark episode in the history of Kerala which not only exhausted the political strength of the Zamorins, but also disturbed the long drawn out communal harmony between the Hindus and Muslims in the years to come. 
 In fact, the fortunes of the port of Calicut were at stake due to the Portuguese intervention on the Indian waters. Most often, it is postulated that the prosperity of this port was at its best when the Muslim merchants cherished under the patronage of Zamorins until the early sixteenth century; therefore, the expulsion of the same group of merchants from the Malabar Coast at the expense of Portuguese accelerated the decline of the port as well. Stephen Dale argues that the strained Hindu-Muslim relations in Kerala, particularly in the post-Portuguese era, was the result of the fundamental alterations in the economic character of the Muslim community when a large number of Muslim Mappilas turned into agricultural tenants from urban merchants. Again, the internal dissensions among the rulers of Malabar, particularly the rivalry between the Zamorins of Calicut and the Rajas of Cochin, has been restricted the port of Calicut from growing any further. The selection of Cochin over Calicut as their centre of activities further deteriorated the position of both the Zamorins as well as the port city of Calicut, which could be understood from the following comments made by the Dutch traveller Van Linschoten, sometime at the close of sixteenth century.
“When the Portingals (Portuguese) began to prosper, and to get possession in the country (Malabar), and so become maisters (masters) of the sea, Calicut began to decay, and to lose both name and traffique, and now at this time it is one of the townes of least in all Malabar and Cochin to the contrarie, their king being very rich, and richer then (than) the Samoriin (Zamorin), so that he careth not for him, by means of the favour of the Portingalles”.
 Whatever be the repercussions of Portuguese intervention in Malabar from the sixteenth century onwards, the general conclusion can be drawn with regard to the Zamorins relation with the Muslims, pre-eminently the Arabs, from the words of Ashin Das Gupta. He rightly opines that “the Arabs made Calicut their home and assisted the Samudri [Zamorin] in his territorial expansion and drew on his support for their commercial ambition”.


AUTHOR: Khalid Ponmulathodi
  (Research Scholar, Aligarh University)